A Separate Peace: an excerpt

“Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person ‘the world today’ or ‘life’ or ‘reality,’ he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.

“For me, this moment—four years is a moment in history—was the war.  The war was and is reality for me. I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere.  These are some of its characteristics: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the President of the United States, and he always has been.  The other two eternal world leaders are Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin.  America is not, never has been, and never will be what the songs and poems call it, a land of plenty.  Nylon, meat, gasoline, and steel are rare.  There are too many jobs and not enough workers.  Money is very easy to earn but rather hard to spend, because there isn’t very much to buy.  Trains are always late and always crowded with ‘servicemen.’The war will always be fought very far from America and it will never end.  Nothing in America stands still for very long, including the people, who are always either leaving or on leave.  People in America cry often.  Sixteen is the key and crucial and natural age for a human being to be, and people of all other ages are ranged in an orderly manner ahead of and behind you as a harmonious setting for the sixteen-year-olds of this world.  When you are sixteen, adults are slightly impressed and almost intimidated by you.  This is a puzzle, finally solved by the realization that they foresee your military future, fighting for them.  You do not foresee it.  To waste anything in America is immoral.  String and tinfoil are treasures.  Newspapers are always crowded with strange maps and names of towns, and every few months the earth seems to lurch from its path when you see something in the newspapers, such as the time Mussolini, who had almost seemed one of the eternal leaders, is photographed hanging upside down on a meathook.  Everyone listens to news broadcasts five or six times every day.  All pleasurable things, all travel and sports and entertainment and good food and fine clothes, are in the very shortest supply, always were and always will be.  There are just tiny fragments of pleasure and luxury in the world, and there is something unpatriotic about enjoying them.  All foreign lands are inaccessible except to servicemen; they are vague, distant, sealed off as though behind a curtain of plastic. The prevailing color of life in America is a dull, dark green called olive drab.  That color is always respectable and always important.  Most other colors risk being unpatriotic.”

Seeing: Some of my favorite quotes

“I have yet to hear a single idea that was worth considering for longer than it took us to listen to it.”

“The president of the republic turned pale, he looked like an old rag that someone had distractedly left behind on the back of the chair, I never thought I would live to see the face of treachery, he said, and felt that history was sure to record the phrase, and should there be any risk of history forgetting, he would make a point of reminding it.”

“Sir, I may only be a police inspector who may never make it as far as superintendent, but I’ve learned from my experience in this job that things half-spoken exist in order to say what can’t be fully expressed.”

“He did all this with great concentration in order to keep his thoughts at bay, in order to let them in only one at a time, having first asked them what they contained, because you can’t be too careful with thoughts, some present themselves to us with a cloying air of of false innocence and then, when it’s too late, reveal their true wicked selves.”

“You know very well that the minister finds it highly suspicious that you didn’t go blind when everyone else was losing their sight, and now that fact has become more than sufficient, from his point of view, for him to find you responsible, either wholly or in part, for what is happening now, Do you mean the blank votes, Yes, the blank votes, But that’s absurd, utterly absurd, As I’ve learned in this job, not only are the people in government never put off by what we judge to be absurd, they make use of absurdities to dull consciences and to destroy reason.”


A Visit from the Goon Squad: an Excerpt

It’s all still there: the pool with its blue and yellow tiles from Portugal, water laughing softly down a black stone wall. The house is the same, except quiet.  The quiet makes no sense.  Nerve gas? Overdoses? Mass arrests? I wonder as we follow a maid through a curve of carpeted rooms, the pool blinking at us past every window. What else could have stopped the unstoppable parties?

But it’s nothing like that. Twenty years have passed.

He’s in the bedroom, in a hospital bed, tubes up his nose.  The second stroke really knocked him out—the first one wasn’t so bad, just one of his legs was a little shaky.  That’s what Bennie told me on the phone.  Bennie from high school, our old friend. Lou’s protégé . He tracked me down at my mother’s, even though she left San Francisco years ago and followed me to LA.  Bennie the organizer, rounding up people from the old days to say good-bye to Lou.  It seems you can find almost anyone on a computer.  He found Rhea all the way in Seattle, with a different last name.

Of our old gang, only Scotty has disappeared.  No computer can find him.

Rhea and I stand by Lou’s bed, unsure what to do.  We know him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying.

There were clues, hints about some bad alternative to being alive (we remembered them together over coffee, Rhea and I, before coming to see him—staring at each other’s new faces across the plastic table, our familiar features rinsed in weird adulthood.) There was Scotty’s mom, of course, who died from pills when we were still in high school, but she wasn’t normal.  My father, from AIDS, but I hardly saw him by then.  Anyway, those were catastrophes.  Not like this: prescriptions by the bed, a leaden smell of medicine and vacuumed carpet.  It reminds me of being in the hospital. Not the smell, exactly (the hospital doesn’t have carpets), but the dead air, the feeling of being far away from everything.

We stand there, quiet.  My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old?  Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?  When did you stop having parties? Did everyone else get old too, or was it just you? Are other people still here, hiding in the palm trees or holding their breath underwater? When did you last swim your laps? Do your bones hurt? Did you know this was coming and hide that you knew, or did it ambush you from behind?

Instead I say, “Hi Lou,” and at the very same time, Rhea says, “Wow, everything is just the same!” and we both laugh.

Lou smiles, and the shape of that smile, even with the yellow shocked teeth inside it, is familiar, a warm finger poking at my gut. His smile, coming open in this strange place.

“You girls.  Still look gorgeous,” he gasps.

By Nightfall: Some of my favorite quotes

Here are some of my favorite quotes from By Nightfall. These are, I should note, prettay prettay long. It’s the kind of book that gets you with entire paragraphs

“He’s one of those smart, drifty young people who, after certain deliberations, decides he wants to do Something in the Arts but won’t, possibly can’t, think in terms of an actual job; who seems to imagine that youth and brains and willingness will simply summon an occupation, the precise and perfect nature of which will reveal itself in its own time.”

“There’s New York, one of the goddamnedest perturbations ever to ride the shifting surface of the earth. It’s medieval, really, all ramparts and ziggurats and spikes and steeples, entirely possible to see a hunchback cloaked in a Hefty bag stumping along beside a woman carrying a twenty-thousand dollar purse. And at the same time, overlaid, is a vast nineteenth-century boomtown, raucously alive, eager for the future but nothing rubberized or air-conditioned about it, no hydraulic hush; trains rumbling the pavement, carved limestone women and men—not gods—looking heftily down from cornices as if from a heaven of work and hard-won prosperity, car horns bleating as some citizen in Dockers passes by telling his cell phone ‘that’s how they’re supposed to be.'””We—we men—are the frightened ones, the blundering and nervous ones; if we act the skeptic or the bully sometimes it’s because we suspect we’re wrong in some deep incalculable way that women are not. Our impersonations are failing us and our vices and habits are ludicrous and when we present ourselves at the gates of heaven the enormous black woman who guards them will laugh at us not only because we aren’t innocent but because we have no idea about anything that actually matters.”

Continue reading “By Nightfall: Some of my favorite quotes”

A Sober Addendum

This is what I did BEFORE I wrote my book review for Gilead.

So it would appear that beer has quite an influence on my a) perception of spirituality and b) choice in vocabulary. In particular, after tossing back six drinks at a happy hour with friends last night, I proceeded to come home and write a rather angry review of Gilead that features no fewer than four instances of the word “beautiful” and a sentence that includes both “bequeath” and “kin.” I am a rather verbose drunk.

I feel in retrospect that I was a little harsh on Gilead (or maybe I’m feeling residual guilt about having panned a Pulitzer Prize winner). So to make amends, and reiterate how impressed I was by the book’s language, if not its subject matter, here are my favorite quotes from Gilead. (Full disclosure: I have a rather neurotic habit of dog-earing the bottom of pages when a particular quote resonates with me, so perhaps sharing these lines would be a way of turning what is otherwise a literary quirk into useful blog fodder).


“A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.”

“I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books.”

“Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time.”

“These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”